Gift giving in business can be tricky, do your research. Illustration by Kristian Ingers.
Gift giving in business can be tricky, do your research. Illustration by Kristian Ingers.


The unwritten rules of gift-giving

Giving gifts in a business setting is a way to show respect, appreciation, and kindness. Doing your research is the key to success. We wrote down some of the unwritten rules.

In the hustle and bustle of the business world, the importance of giving gifts is often overlooked. Knowing when, where, and how is invaluable when doing business: get it wrong and you might lose an important deal. Get it right and you’re on your way to building a long and fruitful relationship.

International protocol expert Pamela Eyring, President of The Protocol School of Washington, says, “It’s easy to know what works when you’re in your own culture, but when doing business overseas there is a lot of room for mistakes, so it’s important to do your research.”

International protocol expert Pamela Eyring.Eyring suggests you speak with colleagues in the region, use the Internet wisely, or refer to a protocol expert. Checking government websites can also be helpful, as they are full of cultural information.

“Learn about taboos, superstitions, and religious considerations,” says Eyring. “If you give a gift that is inappropriate you’re saying that you didn’t do your research and that it’s all about you. In cultures where saving face is important they won’t tell you when you’ve made a mistake – but you won’t be invited back.”

Think more of what the recipient want and less about what you want to give

While a nicely aged scotch or a vintage bottle of wine would be perfectly acceptable in Europe or the US, you wouldn’t give alcohol in the Middle East. In some countries, knives represent the severing of relationships, while clocks or watches mean time is running out.  White flowers can represent death, handkerchiefs connote grief, and unlucky numbers can include four, nine, and 13. Becoming aware of cultural meanings will help you avoid awkward encounters.

“You shouldn’t think about what you might want but instead about what the recipient might like. Try to make a cultural connection. Also understand that some companies, such as in the US, place limits on employees giving or receiving gifts. On the other hand, certain cultures place a premium on status. Putting a bit of thought into the gift will help you strike the right balance,” says Eyring.

“Bring something from your home country that also reflects the country you’re visiting. Once, when visiting the UAE, I gave a hand-blown glass plate with the UAE colors blending through it. It was the perfect way to reflect both my own country’s heritage while respecting their culture.”

When to give a gift and how you present it is almost as important as the gift you choose. 

“In Europe a gift at the first meeting wouldn’t be appropriate – you wait until the relationship is more established. In Asia, though, it’s usually the opposite: you might be told prior to the first meeting that a gift isn’t necessary, but don’t believe it. While you should follow the lead of your hosts, keep a gift in reserve, because 99% of the time you’re going to need it,” says Eyring.

If you’re unsure as to what kind of gift to give it’s preferable to err on the side of elegant simplicity. A large coffee table book full of pictures is always a good opener. Visually beautiful, these also help overcome language barriers. Because food is a common denominator, chocolate or sweets are also great first gifts, along with business card holders or pens with personalized engravings. Have the engravings done in both English and the language of the country you’re visiting (unless it is being given, for example, by a Swede to a Dane – then you can use local languages).

Illustration by Kristian Ingers

“But make sure you have the translation validated”, says Eyring. “Hillary Clinton once presented an engraved gift to the Russian Foreign Minister – and the translation was incorrect. Instead of saying “reset” (perezagruka) it said “overcharged” (peregruzka). Fortunately everyone laughed but that mistake could have soured the new relationship.”

When Eyring was Chief of Protocol for the US Air Force, a visit from a Japanese delegation nearly went awry.
Illustration by Kristian Ingers“When we reviewed the gifts we realized they had been made in China. Always check where gifts are made, especially if you’re working with people from Asia.”

How to present the gift

How to present gifts is another important area. In Japan, you present gifts (both upon meeting and departing) with both hands. In Egypt and Israel, you should accept gifts with the right hand. In the Middle East, you present gifts to the entire group – but do not openly admire another’s gift, as they will feel obliged to offer it to you. You don’t open gifts in the presence of the giver in India, while in South America, gifts should be opened once business matters have concluded.

Meeting “level to level”, such as CEO to CEO, is a sign of respect. And you should never give a gift of equal value or status to, for example, both the president of the company and her assistant.

 When you’re a big company and need to send a lot of gifts at once, such as during a holiday period or to signify the signing of a major contract, it can be difficult to avoid being impersonal. If there is one person with whom you’ve had a lot of contact and built a relationship, give them something separately and discreetly, so others don’t feel left out. Then send a nice selection of tea and biscuits (preferably items that can only be found in your home country) to the office – it’s a nice way of thanking everyone who pitched in and it brings people together.

While there will surely be embarrassing faux pas along the way, if you do make a mistake offer your sincere apologies. 

“One way of smoothing things over is to give the history of the gift, the thought or meaning behind it, and any possible way it might reflect both cultures,” says Eyring.

By doing your research, reading your cues, and throwing in a dollop of winning charm you’ll be well on your way to beating your less savvy rivals and clinching that big contract.

Text: Judi Lembke


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